Newspaper article The Birmingham Post (England)
For a few years I lived in the famous university town of Oxford - in Headington - while working in one of the numerous language schools situated in various parts of that tourist oasis.
And, I must be honest, one of the things that used to delight me, apart from the bicycles and the punts on the river, was the distant sound of church bells ringing at certain times of the week, especially on Sunday mornings. To me they provided a kind of an historic echo of Nordic cultural austerity and tradition that's on par with Norman castles and cathedrals, Morris dancing and Sunday roasts. Absurd as it might sound, I couldn't help feeling a sense of belonging to that middle class strata that defines a certain Britishness - as if even I, from an immigrant background, was a part of the whole and not an appendage.
And yet this isn't unique to Britain - or at least not quite.
I remember I felt a similar sense of affinity in the plains of Amritsar a couple of years ago, when I went to record a documentary feature for Radio 4. It was early autumn and I remember waking up one morning and sensing the tranquil beauty - and sound - of Indian Sikh culture. It jangled its way through the window at dawn - a cacophony of bells and hymns broadcast on loud speakers at the Golden Temple. And even then in a split moment I got a sense of calm repose and an oozing sense of serenity, something close to spirituality.
But - and this is important - it didn't make me feel I was part of the place or its surroundings. In fact, the sound was faintly alienating.
Not like Oxford and its church bells.
My feelings for them wasn't - and isn't - just a romanticised vision of Englishness that appealed to me. Apart from being culturally quaint, on a deeper level, the bells were (and are) a reminder of a certain religious antiquity of English Christendom; a rare antiquity that has been developing and reshaping itself through the passage of time.
And, as someone with a strong interest in history and cultural identity, that suited me fine for this is, after all, a Christian country.
Last month the committee of the Oxford Mosque - on the east side of the famous university town where a large proportion of the Bangladeshi community live along the busy Cowley Road - asked their council to grant them permission to broadcast the Islamic daily call to prayer. And to say that this caused a furore is nothing but an understatement. Apparently a majority of the town's non-Muslim residents were and, indeed, are absolutely furious. They believe that further implementation of features of 'otherness' will deepen the erosion of the town's well-established Christian cultural identity.
In fact, feelings on this subject are so strong that some critics have argued that should it go ahead, it will open a floodgate of right wing political backlash and exacerbate cultural disrespect and suspicion.
And perhaps there's a certain truth in that viewpoint.
At a time when people are concerned about maintaining their heritage, culture and language or connecting with their history and defining their relationships with 'otherness', permitting the right to broadcast an Islamic call to prayer in a town that is quite essentially English could - on one level - be seen as a cultural/religious provocation.
Instead of creating communal ease and harmony, it is more likely to cause friction and antagonism which will go against the very spirit of multiculturalism and political correctness. …